KP Reads

'Life of Johnson,' the Ultimate Stay-at-Home Book

You think self-isolation is tough? Try doing it on a boat.


The best thing about sailing, as far as I’m concerned, is that when you do it right it’s really boring.

I sailed to Hawaii with one of my early husbands. It was 24 hours of terror stretched out over three weeks of tedious routine, dried food and frayed nerves.

No, not the marriage.

Portrait of Samuel Johnson c. 1772 , by Sir Joshua Reynolds

As Samuel Johnson famously opined, “No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.”

I read all about him in “The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.,” written by James Boswell in 1791. It’s supposedly the greatest of all English biographies, but all I cared about was that it got me halfway across the Pacific.

Of course, that was on the trip back to the mainland, having armed myself after realizing how stupidly unprepared I was for the first crossing.

Pro tip: The best used bookstores are always in small towns next to big oceans, and it’s because of people like me selling what they’ve read to buy something they haven’t. I hit this place in Lahaina that was guarded by a cat born with its tail in a knot and picked up a three-volume hardcover edition of Boswell with slipcases for $3.

Sorry Amazon — we had fun, but you’re dead to me now.

Born in 1709, Johnson was one of those people who are too smart for their own good. His parents didn’t help, showing off his startling intellect while bemoaning his tactless behavior and strange physical tics. Modern observers suspect he suffered from Tourette syndrome, a condition unknown to the 18th century.

Johnson left Oxford University without a degree after one year when he ran out of money, then got fired from a teaching post after an argument with the headmaster and opened his own private school that went bust a year later. But a well-connected former pupil got him a job writing for a London magazine in 1735, and that changed everything.

His articles made him popular, and that made him prolific. He became a poet, playwright, critic and essay writer. He wrote a 10-volume critique of English poets and an introduction to Shakespeare’s works that is famous to this day.

In 1747 Johnson was commissioned to create “A Dictionary of the English Language,” the most successful, if not the first, attempt to standardize spelling, definition and usage — if you can imagine that. It took nine years and half a dozen assistants and remained the last word on the subject until the Oxford English Dictionary was published 150 years later on the threshold of the 20th century.

But Johnson was still mostly broke until 1762 when King George III (Remember him? Yeah, that guy) gave him an annual pension of £200 in appreciation for the Dictionary. Oxford also gave him an honorary degree, hence Dr. Johnson.

James Boswell was 22 when he met the 54-year-old Johnson in, unsurprisingly, a London bookstore, in 1763. For a touch of context, that was the same year a 6-year-old Mozart entertained the 8-year-old Marie Antoinette at the Hapsburg imperial court of the Holy Roman Empire in Vienna.

Johnson was famous and Boswell was a titled but diffident Scottish provincial on his way to law school. For reasons never explained to my satisfaction, they hit it off and remained friends until Johnson’s death in 1784.

Let’s say you meet Mick Jagger at a bar, or better yet Keith Richards, and he likes you for whatever reason. Then you become dining buddies and pen pals for 20 years and you end up writing his biography. That’s what we’re talking about.

Once you get over the flavor of 18th century language in the biography — much to me like the briny assault of raw oysters (which Johnson fed to his cat) — there is a subtle mixture of light and penetrating observation about the man and his times that makes you see things in a different way.

Among other contrarian propensities, Johnson was a strident abolitionist when Britain was still building its empire with slave labor, once calling the British colony of Jamaica "a place of great wealth and dreadful wickedness, a den of tyrants, and a dungeon of slaves." (His valet, Francis Barber, was a freed Black Jamaican and one of Johnson's heirs.) Of the American colonists, he once quipped, "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of slaves?"

According to Boswell, Johnson also famously said, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” What Boswell did not say was that Johnson despised traveling. He preferred transport through discourse, a vocation at which he excelled and that made him a popular dinner guest in spite of the impulsive behavior he spent a lifetime trying to control, and the famous sesquipedalian snark he deployed to cover it.

We would have gotten along, I decided, unweirdly. Johnson was a misfit trying to remake himself, who instead remade the way the world defined itself — literally (at least the English speaking part of it).

It’s all uphill sailing home from Hawaii, by the way. The prevailing wind blows against you; meaning, for you non-sailors, the wind hates you. You are cold, wet and tired all the time. When I was off watch, I ate meals out of a bag in my soggy bunk, wearing my foulies and reading the droll judgments of a long dead Englishman for comfort, before I fell asleep to dream of better husbands.

According to Johnson, “Great works are performed not by strength, but by perseverance.”